Extract: Clothing doesn’t just tell us about ourselves

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UNLESS YOU’RE A nudist, you wear clothes every day. But you might not give a huge amount of thought about the history of the items you wear, or maybe who has made them. Sofi Thanhauser, a writer and artist who researches clothing, has written a fascinating book that’s a ‘people’s history of clothing’.

In the book, she looks at the creativity and ingenuity behind textile production across centuries and cultures – but she also looks at the human cost of it, such as labour camps. In this extract, she looks at how dressing might be seen as something we do alone, but it also serves as a way for us to look at many aspects of the society we live in.

Dressing is an individual act, but it is also a deeply social one.

Clothing is not merely a demonstration of our relations to one another, it is a crystallization of these relationships. It is not surprising, then, that myths and stories about cloth and clothing are a place where people grapple with what ought to be their correct relationship with one another: with ethics.

Myths and stories about cloth and clothing contain warnings: about locking women up and forcing them to spin (Rumpelstiltskin) or weave (The Crane Wife), about the idiocies of the powerful (The Emperor’s New Clothes).

They explore the limits of human cruelty (Snow White), as well as the limits of human changeability and the relationship between the interior and the exterior self (Cinderella, Cap- o’- Rushes).

Cultural debates about clothes become proxy wars for other issues.

In any historical period or region, to study a culture’s conflicts and debates about clothes is to watch them approach the basic questions of civic life. How much inequality should exist between people, and should they be able to rise in the world? How does a society treat its women and men? Children and adults? Mortals and gods? What is the appropriate relationship between the individual person and the collective? How much more powerful should the powerful be than the weak?

In the contemporary United States, the culture is glutted with language about clothes, but the vast majority of this language belongs to the advertisers, or the para- advertisers in the form of magazines whose revenue stream is driven by apparel marketing. Clothing is offered to modern consumers both as an opportunity for creative expression, and a solution to every possible ill. Clothes exist for exercise: to achieve health. For yoga: to achieve peace of mind. For beauty: to attract a mate. For career advancement: to secure an income. For self-renovation: to heal a broken heart.

Clothes do have power. The power of the branding apparatus, though, rests in making people believe that various ways of processing oil and cotton somehow yield distinctive objects. In this, the fashion industry parallels the
US food industry, which, as Michael Pollan has shown, reconstitutes a very few agricultural commodities: corn, soy, rice, and wheat, into an ever-shifting panoply of miracle products. With clothing, as with food, there is a vast secondary industry in guiding consumers in their purchases: magazines, stylists, subscription shopping services, and other “experts”.

Fortunately, in an age of false myths, there also persist reliable sources of information. These are, of course, the clothes themselves.

The biologist ML Ryder, tracing the evolution of sheep breeds in Britain, noted, “a parchment may have written records and painted miniatures of sheep on its surface, but the true history of sheep lies within the parchment itself.” Parchment is made from sheepskin.

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The garment does not lie, though the writing on it may. A shirt may say “Wisconsin” while its tag reads “Made in India,” but the real political story lies in its polycotton blend. To read objects carefully and accurately is to read the world itself: its systems and its systems-level failures.

Sometimes the clothes we wear tell truer stories than we do. For instance, those about the limits of human cruelty. In the US, I was raised to believe in the myth of progress: the idea that people and institutions that once were cruel and rapacious are no longer.

The record shows that our cultural capacity for cruelty and exploitation, rather than improving along a straight line, waxes and wanes like the moon. In 1850, it was a commonplace for women seamstresses to live near starvation levels while working fourteen- hour days making shirts.

In 1950 this kind of life was unthinkable for a seamstress defended by a union.

Today it is a commonplace again.

Worn by Sofi Thanhauser is published by Allen Lane and available now.

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